One of the nice things about the academic library and its use of the Library of Congress system is that books are grouped by original language. As a result, I was in the library picking up a copy of The Story of Zahra, my book for Lebanon, when I happened to see The Season of Migration to the North by Tayeb Salih just down the shelf. (Lyrics Alley, my ‘official’ book for Sudan was written in English so it was shelved elsewhere.)
I’d recently read a page listing the 5 favorite Arabic books of a number of knowledgeable people and seen that The Season of Migration to the North occurred repeatedly on many people’s lists. Since it was short and sitting right in front of me, I decided to pick it up too.
The Season of Migration to the North is written from the perspective of a narrator who has returned to Sudan after studying in England. Upon his return to his village, he meets Mustafa, a newcomer who it turns out also studied in London and returned to Sudan. Much of the book revolves around Mustafa and his mysterious past.
I had a hard time reading it at first because of the extremely objectified way in which women were discussed by the characters, particularly because I wasn’t sure for quite a long time whether the author and the book were endorsing that perspective. I think that’s evidence of how well written the book is, but I felt a lot more comfortable with the book once it became clear that the book was criticizing this treatment of women.
There’s a lot of meat to this book on topics of colonialism, gender, race, development and so on, but I think what I will remember it most for is its portrayal of a community when a preventable tragedy occurs. There’s such a sense of dispersed responsibility and guilt, where nearly everyone tries to put the blame onto someone else or to justify themselves with tradition. And yet you can feel that this doesn’t work, that ultimately everyone is uncomfortable with the role that they played.
In between the main plot of the book, there is an interlude where the narrator travels in a truck through the desert from his village to Khartoum. The descriptions of the desert and of the spontaneous gathering of travelers that occurs are some of my favorite parts of the book. But my favorite quote of has to be this:
“The driver, who had kept silent the whole day, has now raised his voice in song: a sweet, rippling voice that you can’t imagine is his. He is singing to his car just as the poets of old sang to their camels:
How shapely is your steering-wheel astride its metal stem.
No sleep or rest tonight we’ll have till Sitt Nafour is come.”
My copy of the book had a helpful introduction by Laila Lalami. As is so often the case though, I’d suggest reading it after you read the book, not before. (Why not put these things as afterwords rather than introductions? Or not give away the entirety of the plot if you want it to be an introduction?!) Reading the introduction also reminded me that I really should read/see Othello. There are references to Othello in so many places (including The Season of Migration to the North), that I have picked up bits and pieces of what it is about, but I don’t actually know the complete plot.
I’ve been trying to decide which book I would recommend to someone else doing a book-from-every-country project, this book or Lyrics Alley. In the end I can’t make up my mind. I would say that The Season of Migration to the North was a more challenging and more ‘literary’ read, but that both were very good.
For those that have read this book, what do you make of the ending? Is it hopeful or not?